How I know when I’ve got the right ending for my novel

There are often a number of ways to end a story. Many options might be logical or surprising. How do you pick the right one?

What makes a good ending? Three words: surprising, inevitable and right.

The first two categories are linked – and come down to what events you choose and how you seed them.

For me, thinking of events isn’t the biggest problem. I can think of many ways to tie up a tale. What I want is the one that will be right.

What is the right ending?

A story is more than a series of stepping stones. It is an emotional journey. There is a reason why it finishes where it does. The end comes when there is a natural feeling of resolution, that the problem, whatever it was, is solved and will never need to be revisited (unless you’re brewing a sequel). So a good ending is more than the knotting of loose threads. It has a quality that psychologists call closure. It is a feeling that there is nothing more to deal with.

How I find the right ending

To find my true ending, I go to the beginning. I look at the core question that is asked, and all the underlying subcurrents. What does the character need, today, next week, in the long-term future? Why are these such big issues? What about the questions they don’t even know about yet, which will be uncorked as they go through the story?

I ask myself what it will feel like when all those are answered. For My Memories of A Future Life, my adult novel which is currently on submission, the answer came on one of my running sprees. Exhaustion plus endorphins often lead me to interesting insights, particularly when a story is keeping itself obscure. I pounded along with, of all things, the George Michael album Older in my headphones. You may smirk but at the end was a short wistful track with one lyric: ‘feels so good to be free’. Sure it’s cheesy, but My Memories of A Future Life would not be done until the MC was able to say that.

I also realise it’s the song for the end of Life Form 3, the MG novel I am now finishing, and it could well be for the next adult novel I am incubating… hey maybe I’m developing an authorly theme here. But when I first drafted Life Form 3 I had a different ending. It had logic and surprise, but not closure. So I took my running shoes for a spin (with Boards of Canada and Peter Gabriel, since you ask), and examined all the questions in the character’s life. That guided me to ditch the final third of the novel and feel my way to the ending that brings true resolution.

Last words first

The children’s writer Alan Garner, author of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, would think of the last line of his novel before any of the others. That’s when he knew he was ready to start writing.

I don’t necessarily plan the last line, but I do plan the last feeling, or the vibe of the shot if it was a movie. When I have brought the story there, I know I have the right ending. (Thank you, Moriartys, for the pic)

How do you find the right ending for your story?

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  1. #1 by Shay Fabbro on March 6, 2011 - 11:12 pm

    I always write a full synopsis before I start writing the book and I have a solid beginning and end. Then I just fill in the middle. I normally have lots of ideas for little mini conflicts, side stories, interactions for the middle part. But I can’t start writing if I don’t know how it’s going to end, or at least get a basic idea so that I am not just going and going and going with no real idea how to tie things up😀

    • #2 by rozmorris on March 6, 2011 - 11:21 pm

      Hi Shay – yes I’m a plotter too. Definitely need a map!

  2. #3 by Laura Pauling on March 6, 2011 - 11:26 pm

    I love watching movies where the ending is a reflection of the beginning and that aha moment I have with closure that plays on the emotions planted in the opening. Great post.

    • #4 by rozmorris on March 7, 2011 - 9:25 am

      Hi Laura – that’s exactly what I’m talking about!

  3. #5 by Sally on March 7, 2011 - 11:31 am

    Hi Roz,

    Thanks for this post. It’s really right on time for me, since I got to the end of my WIP recently and found myself assessing whether or not it was right. What Laura has said above (reiterating wht you have written) about the ending reflecting the beginning very much applies to my WIP. The beginning did set up the ending. In fact the last third or so is almost a complete ‘repeat of history’ of the beginning, but with a twist which also happens to answer the central quesiton in the story. Hope that make sense. I read somewhere that this kind of ending is called a ‘circular’ ending, a concept somehow really resonates with me and my personal preferences in fiction. So I think I’ve got the right ending, both in the literary sense and the emotional. Phew!🙂

    • #6 by rozmorris on March 7, 2011 - 1:35 pm

      Hi Sally – yes that makes perfect sense. Not all endings have to be so overtly circular, of course, but if they tie into the beginning – even in a low-key way – they are much more satisfying.

  4. #7 by llamawriter23 on March 7, 2011 - 11:48 am

    I’m not the greatest finisher, I have to confess. I have a pretty good idea where my story is going when I start to write, but I also like to keep some flexibility because, despite planning, a story may not always want to go where you want it to go!
    Quite a few of my children’s books ended with … As I used to say at the workshops I did for kids, just because I’ve stopped writing the story, that doesn’t mean it can’t carry on in your heads.
    Probably I should make my endings more definite. Like this!
    I always enjoy your posts,
    Stephanie

    • #8 by rozmorris on March 7, 2011 - 2:02 pm

      Stephanie, that’s a kind of ending I hadn’t considered and of course it is valid for some kinds of story. Would it be valid for something as long and chewy as a novel? I think there does have to be a definite end, even if a tantalising question is left trailing.

  5. #9 by Tara Benwell on March 7, 2011 - 1:55 pm

    I loved this post, especially the part about the running. Oh, how I miss this part of the process. I’m forever making excuses about why I don’t have time to run anymore with two young kids keeping me hopping. I’ve started running indoors beside my daughter as she does a 3 stage bicycle race on the Wii. This doesn’t exactly cut it for the “story insights” to come through. I need to run alone!
    My editor recently had a concern about the ending of my novel. I didn’t make any major changes because I’ve already done all I can with it and I’m actually happy with it compared to the others I’ve written. When she read it a second time for copy editing purposes (after the holiday madness) she told me it was the right ending and that I should be proud of it. This left me with a few questions.
    1. Will readers have to read my book twice in order to really “get it”?
    2. How important is the reader’s own life? I mean, sometimes a book talks to us one day, but not the next. I’ve picked up books that I’ve dismissed quickly in the past and years later found them to be masterpieces.

    Great post Roz! Now to read all of the comments. I’m sure I’ll find some more treats.

    • #10 by rozmorris on March 7, 2011 - 2:06 pm

      Tara, what wonderful questions.
      Once somebody has read the novel even in imperfect form they will never see it anew. What can we do, except line up a series of readers who can be new eyes at each stage? That’s not always feasible, especially if you’re working with a professional.
      Your other question…. I know exactly what you mean. And sometimes I’ve had to read a book with a particular objective in mind and haven’t clicked with it at all. I’ve picked it up again, mere weeks later, and judged it on its own terms and enjoyed it very much.
      Sometimes what we do seems so hit and miss.
      Love the image of you running alongside your daughter! But you’re right – writers need alone time. Perhaps that explains why so many writers are runners too.

  6. #11 by Sarcasm Goddess on March 8, 2011 - 2:15 am

    Visiting from TRDC; soooo glad I found your blog. I have been working on my novel for quite some time and the ending keeps haunting me, because I want it to be right. I can’t count how many books I’ve thrown down pissed at the way it ended…not because I wanted a different ending but because it didn’t do what you said – be surprising, inevitable and right.

    I am not a runner – in fact, I loathe it – but walking always clears my head. Writer’s block? Go for a walk!

    Can’t wait to spend more time on your blog.

    • #12 by rozmorris on March 8, 2011 - 6:43 pm

      Red dress goddess – Very interesting.. we can learn a lot from analysing books that leave us unsatisfied. Finding the right ending isn’t easy and I often find it takes a lot of wrong shots before the right one comes along. Glad to have helped! And running isn’t for everyone…

  7. #13 by Alexander M Zoltai on March 8, 2011 - 8:24 pm

    Speaking of last lines…

    My WIP ends with a quote from a character I thought would only be in the first scene. She quickly disabused me of that sentiment and became a pivotal character who ended up getting the last word🙂

    • #14 by rozmorris on March 8, 2011 - 9:01 pm

      That is a wonderful story, Alexander. In my current book, I have characters who sat up and demanded to be at the end too. Although not the last line…

  8. #15 by Barry Dashwood on March 9, 2011 - 3:51 pm

    I’m a pantser writer, and I normally feel squidgy about a story until I’m sure about the ending, and then I can pour it on at a rate of knots. It’s too late for this leopard to change it’s spots, but I wish I’d been more of a planner, I think I would have been a better writer if I’d gone down that route. My favourite ending came to me early on in the process, and I actually wrote the last chapter when I was still only a third of the way through the first draft. And it felt so right I subsequently changed not a word.
    To me, an ending is as an ending is, and in my opinion, you shouldn’t tack an alien ending onto a story just to ‘tidy things up’.

    • #16 by rozmorris on March 9, 2011 - 7:08 pm

      Barry, you have to be very sure of a story to be able to write the last chapter like that. I always find that even if I know where I’m heading, there is a lot that I want to thread into the last chapter that I couldn’t predict until I was deep into the writing.
      Agreed, not every ending that ‘ties things up’ is going to be the right ending.

  9. #17 by Kate Kyle on March 9, 2011 - 5:40 pm

    I like what you said about the ending being the closure to the main character’s emotional journey.
    I also start with the end in mind – I have to have the beginning (a problem or a conflict) and the end (the resolution and the closure) before I can even start plotting. I can’t plan any journey if I don’t know where I’m going and I admire ‘pantsers’ who are able to sit and write the entire story with just the beginning in mind.
    Thanks for another interesting and relevant post, Roz

    • #18 by rozmorris on March 9, 2011 - 7:09 pm

      Thanks, Kate! I don’t know how pantsers do it either.

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